It’s not often you get to hear a brand’s story from inception to success. But those stories exist, and they encourage those going through similar struggles to keep going.
In this post we look behind the scenes of Unwelcome Greetings, and the path the creators took from closing the books on one unconventional idea and opening the cover of another to ultimately find their niche.
Part 1: A high-school ecommerce startup
Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, Steven Gordon, like many teenage hopefuls, wanted to become a rapper. Gary Jiang, an East Village native, was particularly fond of graffiti and art.
With a love for everything hip-hop and a deep respect for streetwear culture, the pair partnered to launch MuffinMilk, a now-defunct streetwear brand. But, while they were in high school, the two managed to pull off an impressive six figures in sales. Their custom, screen-printed t-shirts, hoodies, and sweaters sold like hotcakes in their high school hallways and online.
Using Facebook to spread the word
Jiang recalls, “Facebook was just starting to get popular amongst high school students, this was pre-advertising, pre-Facebook Pages—pretty much before Facebook was designing anything to accommodate businesses. We made a Facebook Group called ‘I WANT A MUFFINMILK SHIRT!’ and shared it with all of our friends.
“It quickly picked up steam in our high school, which had a student population of 4,500 students,” Jiang continues. “Within two weeks, we had almost 3,000 people in the Facebook Group, all asking to buy our products.”
At the time, Jiang was using clothing as a vehicle for his creativity. He explains, “We were experimenting with screen printing, graffiti, and art. The apparel was just a way to make the art travel faster; it just happened to really pick up steam through the rising popularity of social media—you could say that was our first experience going viral.”
To grow the business, the team took a grassroots approach. “We expanded to recruiting students from other densely populated high schools and created Facebook Groups specific to those schools. Our reps would take orders from those dedicated groups. In total, we had six of these groups across all of New York City,” says Jiang.
Back then, Gordon and Jiang learned how to successfully tap social media to not only build a loyal fan base but mobilize them to purchase products.
In 2012, after four years in business, the pair closed up shop. By that point, the two were in college and were back to focusing on the typical things students worry about—exams, relationships, and their next meal—rather than running a business.
It wasn’t until three years later that the two friends would team up again to form a new company.
Part 2: An “unwelcome” business idea
In late 2014, an internet meme caught Steven Gordon’s attention. The video captured a memorable interview with Donna Goudeau as she was being detained for her involvement in the beating, robbing, and stabbing of a 73-year-old victim. After a news reporter approached Goudeau for questioning, Goudeau stated her case: “I’m an innocent bystander. They saying I drove a getaway car but I cannot see; I’m legally blind. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it. I’m innocent.”
And, while those lines made their rounds across the web, another snippet of the Goudeau interview also became incredibly popular. At one point, Goudeau shouted, “Momma, I love you. P.O.P. hold it down,” to which Gordon chuckled and thought, “Oh, man, that’d be a hilarious card for Mother’s Day.”
So Gordon turned this internet meme into his first working prototype.
Founding an etailer on pop culture
Gordon shares, “Once I made the card, I found it to be the perfect template for other Mother’s Day cards, which led to the creation of our first site MamaILuhYou.com.”
Then the orders started coming in.
“The sales from this first site validated the idea that people wanted quirky greeting cards. So, after gathering additional feedback from close friends and customers, I decided to take the next logical step and create a business.” It was then that Gordon brought Gary Jiang into the fold.
By day, Steven Gordon is a registered nurse. With his salary, he financed the operation, which includes the broad spectrum of startup costs—office supplies, product materials, website hosting, and advertising. To form what would later become Unwelcome Greetings, Jiang left a startup he was building in Boston, MA, to move back to New York City and team up with Gordon once again.
When we asked, “Why greeting cards?” Jiang opines, “Greeting cards, and other seasonal gift items, do not cater to millennials. To millennials, gifting your typical store-bought greeting card is a corny and lazy gesture. Recipients unenthusiastically open them just to shake the cash out.”
Unwelcome Greetings value prop
“Unwelcome Greetings caters to the internet generation with greeting cards and gifts that are actually worth giving.” Gordon agrees, “Traditional greeting cards are outdated. They are no longer reflective of what we really want to say to each other on special days; it is just a societal norm that feels like a requirement or polite gesture instead of genuine gift-giving. Plus, as a society, we are overexposed to the world via the internet and desensitized to true emotion.
“Traditional Hallmark cards lack authenticity. We want to bring shock value to gifts, flip greeting cards on their heads, give people surprises they won’t expect. Instead of people opening the card just for the money in them, these cards become the topic of conversation, they create the memory on a memorable day. And these cards are getting the same shine on the fridge door as the kid’s grades.”
Capitalizing on memes and new media trends
Since their MuffinMilk days, Gordon and Jiang have kept their ear to the ground. Staying abreast of what’s hip and what’s not. And in their spare time, they’ve familiarized themselves with new channels to build a fanbase and grow their audience. Yet, after all these years, they have returned to Facebook, using it as their primary customer acquisition channel.
It wasn’t until early 2013 that people began posting their videos directly to Facebook. Before that, YouTube was the go-to destination for all video content. Now, it’s reported that more than 500 million people watch video on Facebook every day, per Forbes. By comparison, More than 500 million hours of videos are watched on YouTube each day, per Business Insider.
Although YouTube remains the king of video, savvy publishers, like Unwelcome Greetings, have discovered the power and potential of Facebook video.
MuffinMilk, for its teenage founders, was a huge success. But all the hype and popularity around the brand tapered off when the company’s brand reps all graduated from high school and many moved out of the city.
MuffinMilk’s Facebook numbers dwindled—currently, only 29 members remain in the company’s original Facebook group. Gordon and Jiang knew what it was like to go viral, but they also knew what the consequences were when you stopped feeding interesting content to a hungry audience. Effectively, your fans and followers would abandon you.
Of course, they wouldn’t make that same mistake twice.
Finding success from Facebook video
For the Unwelcome Greetings Facebook page, Gordon and Jiang repost hilarious memes they see around the web and publish their own custom videos featuring their quirky greeting cards.
For some time. pinned at the top of the Unwelcome Greetings timeline was a video showing people’s reactions to what Gordon and Jiang call “The Worst Greeting Card Ever,” pictured above, which was a design for April Fool’s Day. In less than a month, that video received approximately 100,000 views.
To date, the company has had a cumulative 50 million views across its branded videos on Facebook. Its most popular one promotes the store’s “His Name Is John Cena Birthday Card” and generated 5.5 million views alone.
Gordon credits the brand’s success to a pretty simple strategy: “Incorporating memes and viral videos into our products as soon as they trend on the Internet.” By piggybacking off of new internet sensations while they’re hot, Unwelcome Greetings is able to consistently maintain its marketing momentum.
Naturally, though, keeping up with pop culture is hard. Jiang says, “Our products target and appeal to millennial audiences because of the viral nature of our products. It’s more of a product strategy, but we try to keep our turnaround time extremely quick, so, that way, we can pump out a product as soon as a new viral video appears on the Internet.”
In simpler terms, Jiang explains, “Basically, the faster that we can turn around a new product when a viral video becomes popular, the more likely it is that we can ride the wave of virality.”
Part 3: Future aspirations and advice to other ecommerce entrepreneurs
In once year post-launch, Unwelcome Greetings was able to sell over 5,000 greeting cards, showing sales accelerating quickly. In the first two months of 2016, the company doubled its 2015 revenues.
The results of switching from Big Cartel to Shopify
When they first built their web store, Gordon and Jiang hosted Unwelcome Greetings on Big Cartel, but have since switched to Shopify, where they were ranked in the top 1% of newly created Shopify stores.
Moving forward, Gordon hopes to “diversify our product offerings into a wide variety of Unwelcome gifts as well as creating new products for different niche demographics such as gamers or sports fans.” Jiang hints, “We can’t exactly reveal what our new line of Unwelcome gifts will be, but they fall under the home decor category.”
In some ways, the business fits right at the intersection of media and commerce. “We want to expand our online presence to cover the gamut of entertaining viral media, including memes, viral videos, fail videos, and pranks,” says Jiang. “Eventually, we are going to open it up to user submissions because we believe that strategy will rapidly accelerate community growth.”
The crew’s advice to other ecommerce entrepreneurs
The company’s next big milestone is to sell an average of 100+ cards each day. With nearly 10,000 subscribers on their mailing list, Gordon and Jiang should reach their goal any day now. And, if they were to start all over again, three pieces of advice they’d tell their former selves (and other ecommerce entrepreneurs) are:
- Keep overhead low. “Limit the amount of inventory you have. If you are going to be selling physical products, all orders should be made to order, so you are not sitting on excess stock that does not move. If that’s not possible, try drop shipping,” says Gordon.
- Provide fast fulfillment. “Limit friction in your supply chain and accelerate your product’s turnaround time. For small businesses, it’s tough to live up to the expectation Amazon Prime has set. If you manage to develop a fast and reliable supply chain, you may be able to produce and ship product to customers in a couple of days,” notes Jiang.
- Validate your business idea. Gordon recommends, “Sell something to validate your idea before going all in and building a brand that sells products no one wants.” Jiang adds, “It’s one thing to ask people: ‘Would you buy this?’ It’s another to say: ‘Where’s your wallet?’”
Getting your ecommerce business off the ground is tough. There’s a lot of competition, and watching something grow from a grassroots investment to a massive production takes not only time and effort, but wise and strategic steps.
As one of their pieces of advice, Gordon and Jiang suggest entrepreneurs “keep overhead low.” One way to do this is by saving time and effort by connecting an automated email marketing tool to your ecommerce shop. CM Commerce can handle everything from receipts and transaction notifications to abandoned carts and restock reminders.
Not sure where to get started? Here are 12 follow-up emails your ecommerce shop should be sending, and how to get them started using CM Commerce.